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Mares: At The Oasis

During the past week, praise has been expressed by many for Stratty Lines, the long-time owner of the Oasis Diner in downtown Burlington, who died last week at the age of 84. It came from Madeleine Kunin, Pat Leahy, Bernie Sanders, Howard Dean, Bill Sorrell, Phil Hoff, and a host of lesser knowns and un-knowns.

Perhaps because of his Greek heritage, Stratty ran the Oasis as a kind of Athenian agora, a gathering place for those who wanted to discuss the issues of the day with their breakfasts and lunches. In its seven booths and on its 18 stools you could find lawyers, bankers, journalists, merchants, politicians, judges and many others who came for solid cheese burgers, coleslaw, pies and lively chatter.
 
Stratty would saunter through that 50 by 10 foot silver diner like the captain of a ship, clad in his invariable uniform of white shirt and chef's cap, with an apron over his trousers and a bright smile. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling he could eat with a President - Bill Clinton for instance - and not lose the common touch. Stratty always had the last word, because most customers had to get back to work.

If you didn't want to joust with ideas over your eggs or salad, you went to a different diner just down the street. But at the Oasis, you knew you were joining a community where political conversations and opinions were the coin of the realm. This was long before Starbucks and other coffee shops where you take your laptop and ear buds and inhabit your own solitary world.

Stratty was a traditional Democrat with both a large and small D. Democracy was his passion. He was a politician who never ran for office. He cared deeply about his town, his state, his nation. I think of him as a blue-collar public intellectual who vacuumed up information and challenged all to defend their views. One of Stratty's sons, David, said that his father knew how to hear through the cacaphony of news each day and distinguish what was important.
 
My own fondest memories of Stratty and the Oasis were from the spring of 1983, when Frank Bryan and I were writing REAL VERMONTERS DON'T MILK GOATS. When Frank came up with the title, I said, "Great title! We'll meet at the Oasis for lunch on Monday and see what we have." For seven or eight Mondays, laughing all the while, we shared drafts with each other. We often tried out our ideas on the irrepressible Stratty and anyone else who wanted to weigh in.
 
Three generations of the Lines family ran the Oasis for more than 50 years, until 2007. I'll give the last word to third generation David, who says: The Lines family history - our knowledge and our wit, which was crafted by years of experience and aided by a grill seasoned with five decades of bacon grease - made us realize how fortunate and proud we were to be home-boys making a living in Burlington, Vermont.